Severn Trent Water’s basic IT outlook is one of hyper-mobility, and the ability to work from anywhere.
The point is illustrated – whether intentional or not – when Computing arrives at the company’s London Piccadilly office to find it seemingly deserted apart from CIO Myron Hrycyk.
It’s not every CIO who will greet you at reception – and even make you a cup of tea – but Hrycyk is keen to show me his sparsely populated London base. He points out the thin clients that spring to life as virtual desktops as and when employees are in town and need access to corporate systems.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see a vision that you’re trying to create for your business in terms of delivering mobility that began, maybe, five years ago, being deployed,” says Hrycyk, reflecting on a mobile strategy that he and his 330-strong team are justly proud of.
“What we’ve achieved now is a highly mobile workforce,” he says.
And this focus on mobility is not just confined to field workers, Hrycyk adds.
“There are broadly two groups: you’ve got the office-based workforce and support functions, and those who are planning or project managing asset builds, and we’ve delivered a total shift in the way they go about doing their work, by enabling them to work from various locations and communicate through various devices.”
The other group, of course, comprises the customer service staff and engineers who operate in the field. “Mobile IT is key for when we need to pull people together to solve an urgent problem, particularly to respond to a weather event,” he says.
Severn Trent’s mobile workers currently use Microsoft Lync, webcams and ruggedised, 3G-powered laptops to report in real time back to their office-based colleagues.
Hrycyk is now exploring the potential of more recent technological advances to enable even more to be done remotely.
“I think within five years, our mobility will go beyond the phone, and into other devices to help us do our job better. I’m talking about analytics, manipulation of large volumes of data, mobility and also customer experience technology. How can we deploy technology to make it easier for customers to deal with us?
“I very much believe that if technology works in tandem and in sympathy with the way people work, it really takes off.”
He uses Google Glass as an example, saying the technology could be a good fit for engineers, who often need both hands free to perform tasks and regularly wear eye protection. “Glass may not be that much of an odd sort of technology to be deployed, particularly in confined spaces,” he says.
But Hrycyk sees a stumbling block in his quest for more functional field technology, and that’s the current state of the UK’s wireless communications infrastructure.
“The biggest problem companies like ours face with 3G is coverage,” says Hrycyk. “If you rely on people being able to work remotely, you need coverage. And it’s a fact of life that sometimes in very sparsely populated areas, there isn’t the investment by the infrastructure providers to put a mast up there, and so coverage is a challenge.
“So I’m not worrying about 4G right now, I’m more worrying about whether we can continue to deliver the functionality we want with 3G coverage.”
Severn Trent uses O2 and T-Mobile for its 3G provision, but Hrycyk stresses he is not pointing the finger at these providers, but rather is concerned about the general UK infrastructure. With 2,000 operatives in work crews out 24/7 fixing leaks, repairing broken valves and working on general water infrastructure faults, a reliable wireless connection is essential for Severn Trent.
“I think all 3G providers have got gaps in their coverage. We don’t find that one’s significantly better than the others – you might find you get better coverage with one over here, not over there, and vice versa. So that’s a challenge, and I think it would be absolutely fantastic if we could achieve full coverage on 3G.”
As far as 4G is concerned, Hrycyk says that when the UK “gets over the practicalities of ubiquitous coverage” Severn Trent will look at making more use of realtime video.
“4G bandwidth will be something we will be looking at as part of our five-year plan,” he says. “The demand for 4G bandwidth with streaming video, and far more rich data being passed across a network, is inevitable.
“Therefore, 4G will be something we need to embrace. But you have to be realistic – we’ve got to have good coverage first and 3G at the moment is providing functionality for us, it just needs better coverage.”
When it comes to the mobile devices the company uses to complement its thin clients and virtual desktops, Hrycyk is keen to give staff a choice, but it would be wrong to say he has totally embraced BYOD.
“We have people using their own iPads and iPhones and we are constructing the infrastructure to enable them to bring their Android device or BlackBerry, and to enable them to use the device that they want over the network,” explains Hrycyk. Only iOS devices can access corporate systems over the network, however, with other platforms simply allowed Microsoft webmail access and basic internet connectivity.
“Our technology strategy centres around Microsoft – Lync, Office, SQL Server – but we want to enable people to bring any phone and run it securely over our networks. They should be able to access their email and calendar and, through apps, access core applications.”
To achieve this, Hrycyk needs to deploy a mobile device management (MDM) solution and is currently looking closely at Airwatch and Citrix’s ZenMobile product. He is not, despite a longstanding history as a BlackBerry customer, considering the ailing Canadian company’s offerings in the MDM space, however.
Describing its company-wide BlackBerry loadout of Z10 and Z30 smartphones as “our standard device”, Hrycyk nevertheless feels that, in a multi-platform, BYOD-led future, Severn Trent will be taking a “much wider, holistic view” on how to proceed with mobile management.
Hrycyk maintains that “options are open”, and when asked whether BlackBerry, which is moving into the cross-platform MDM space, is a candidate, his reply is firm: “No, we’re taking a much wider, holistic view with what we do with that.”
Beyond enterprise mobility, one of Hrycyk’s top priorities is to better exploit data through predictive analytics.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve deployed more and more sensors and outstations that are picking up how our [water] infrastructure is performing,” says Hrycyk. “And we’re getting to a point now with IT where we want to pull that data back far more frequently – every 30 seconds rather than once a day – and start to harvest it.”
He says he is looking into using “in-memory computing and high-speed computing, and with powerful algorithms, to predict how infrastructure will perform going forward, so that we can say to customers, ‘we can make sure you won’t run out of water’ by redirecting resources around problems using technology”.
Hrycyk is currently in talks with SAP over using its HANA product for in-memory data analytics. Still a firm believer in on-premise, he’s not looking at taking any essential functions to the cloud for the time being.